Growing up evangelical, I always assumed that our movement had at least one thing going for it: consistency. Unlike “secular culture” who lived according to their whims and proclivities, evangelicals had an objective moral guide in the Bible. This presumption was reinforced among many through a phrase parroted in Sunday School classes across America: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” (More liberal Christians were only slightly better, I assumed, but still needed to be condemned for obeying only the palatable parts of the Bible, and discarding the rest.)
But according to Molly Worthen, history professor at University of North Carolina, evangelicals have never consistently adhered to a single source of authority. In her book “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” she surveys the movement over more than 50 years to show that evangelicals “have never had a single authority to guide them…or settle the troublesome question of what the Bible actually means.” Here, Worthen discusses the provocative arguments she’s making and why they matter.
RNS: You say evangelical Christianity is a paradox. What do you mean?
MW: All human beings have inconsistent opinions and instincts, but evangelicals are more paradoxical than most. Ever since the Reformation, their community has been radically individualist, yet preoccupied with the boundaries of community and family. They criticize the hubris of secular scientists and historians who challenge the claims of the Bible, and call on believers to trust their personal relationship with God–yet many claim that theirs is the most “reasonable faith,” and eagerly seek scientific evidence that the Bible is true.
RNS: You claim that evangelicals have never had a single authority guiding them, but many within the movement would contest that the Bible is their single authority. How do you respond?